Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin greets churchgoers following the annual Festival of Peoples Mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. Ireland’s Catholic Church, host of the International Eucharistic Congress June 10-17, has suffered a dramatic loss of credibility in recent years, but also shows signs of renewal. CNS photo/John McElroy

Irish Church slowly healing but Church bashing persists

By  Michael Kelly, Catholic News Service
  • June 6, 2012

DUBLIN - As it prepares this week to welcome the Catholic world for the International Eucharistic Congress, the Church in Ireland is showing sparks of renewal following a dramatic loss of credibility over the past decade.

A recent survey by the Association of Catholic Priests found that weekly Mass attendance throughout the country is still one of the highest in Europe at 35 per cent.  The 2011 Irish census indicated 84 per cent of people still self-identify as Catholic.

But problems remain. In the capital, still reeling from a combination of religious apathy, secularism and disenchantment as a result of clergy sex abuse scandals, Mass attendance in some parishes is just two per cent.

David Quinn of The Iona Institute, a think-tank that promotes the benefits of religion for society, believes it is wrong to link all the Church’s problems to clerical abuse scandals.

The shift in public opinion, he said, is “driven primarily by the secularizing trends that would have overtaken the rest of Europe over the last century, and only secondly by the scandals, because the downward trends were in place before the scandals ever came to light.”

Still, he says Ireland has reached a point where “Church bashing has replaced ‘Brit bashing’ in the national psyche.”

“If you go back to the days when nationalism of a certain type was very strong in Ireland, if you did not go along with most vitriolic criticisms of Britain you were a ‘West Brit.’

“We have psychologically replaced this with a very unthinking one-eyed critique of Catholicism,” he said.

Divine Word Father Vincent Twomey, a moral theologian, thinks the Church has to look inward to find the root of its current difficulties.

“Our real problem today is not caused by society or the current government’s policies, which are quite clearly anti-Church, anti-Catholic,” he said.

“The Church itself has contributed to the secularization of society by failing to grasp the imagination of people, by failing to feed their intellectual thirst for the truth,” he added.

Bishop Joseph Duffy, speaking just before he retired as bishop of Clogher in 2010, said the Irish Church is “crying out” for reform.

He said the Irish bishops have been “dragging our feet” on the important issue of reform and Church leaders have not fully embraced the Second Vatican Council.

“What we are really talking about now is radical reform all across the country,” Duffy told The Irish Catholic newspaper.

“We’re working out a Church based on a society that no longer exists. We need to dramatically address whether we’re fit for purpose.”

Duffy said that “sometimes we’ve tended to protect the institution of the Church too much. But the Church doesn’t exist for the sake of it. The Church exists to respond to the legitimate pastoral needs of the people.”

“This is not going to be about pressing a button and making everything all right again. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and discussion between everyone in the Church — bishops, priests and people.”

His challenge is being taken up by some dioceses. In Belfast, Bishop Noel Treanor has embarked on an ambitious Living Church program.

It includes listening sessions in all parishes as well as special sessions for young people, including Catholics who no longer practise their faith.

“There are times when the people of God are called to reform and renew the Church, and I believe this is one such time,” Treanor said.

Treanor believes that the culture in the Church in Ireland must be influenced by what is positive in the wider culture.

He notes that modern culture is characterized by a greater sense of participation.

“Everyone expects to participate in governance, to have our voice heard and thus to enhance the quality of governance.”

Last year’s national census that showed 84 per cent of Irish people still call themselves Catholic is regarded as a positive sign.

The Iona Institute’s Quinn believes that this is evidence that “the Church can be optimistic about the future if it can attract these people to re-engage. But, we mustn’t take anything for granted and assume that identification with the faith will automatically lead to practice.”

Twomey remains optimistic.

“What we need first is a spiritual, pastoral, liturgical and theological renewal of the Church from within,” he said, adding “that will take time.”

He said he believes that “the kind of listening process that has taken place in some dioceses could be the first step to ensure that both lay and clerics no longer feel that they are second-class members.”

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